Commentary: As an employer, I may not deny you a job because I don’t like your skin color or your hijab; yet as a voter, I am free to help elect a government that will strip away your rights and dignity.
Or am I?
Terry Smith’s new book, “Whitelash,” out this month from Cambridge University Press, presents a provocative question: If the law forbids various forms of discrimination in the workplace, in housing, in commercial spaces, etc., why is it acceptable to practice invidious discrimination at the ballot box?
There is little room for disputing that white grievance and animus against ethnic or religious groups is motivating voters and influencing elections. Surveys of voter sentiment consistently record high rates of resentment over changing demographics and social progress for other groups as well as feelings that white people’s place in society is being diminished or under attack.
Another measure is the fact that appeals to white resentment proves successful for many candidates, not least of whom was President Donald Trump, who launched his campaign for president with a speech characterizing Mexican immigrants as a threat to society: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The power of such messaging is indicated by the fact that a base of white voters consistently votes against its own economic interest in support of appeals that are explicitly or pretextually racist. Meanwhile, other groups — black voters in particular, as shown in studies — are seen voting for candidates that advance economic opportunity as well as equal treatment under the law, even when that candidate is white.
Election data across the United States show a worsening racial divide that is also lopsided in its influence. We are a representative democracy that is 60 percent white, yet approximately 90 percent of elected officers nationwide are white.
Thus, it is not difficult to accept the premise that there is whitelash taking place in the privacy of the voting booth, with clear harm to other groups as a consequence via voter suppression efforts, travel bans targeting Muslims, and horrific actions at the southern border among the better-known examples.
Voters can select any candidate they wish, but Smith argues they can still be held accountable for misconduct. After all, if a community passes a ballot measure that discriminates against a religious or ethnic group, it can be overturned based on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and civil rights law.
The prescription here is not for courts to start invalidating elections, but looking ahead and using provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and promoting electoral reforms that do not require constitutional amendments, such as making the Electoral College and U.S. Senate elections more democratic.
For the general reader, Smith weaves critical theory and legal history to expose, consistent with research elsewhere, the extent of racial polarization and its influence on policy.
“Whitelash” also challenges the reader to consider voting as a social function. The legal arguments are based on the fact that voting is a consequential public act, and in the closing chapters Smith demonstrates how permitting its use as an instrument of racist backlash is eroding public institutions that can intervene on behalf of the common welfare.
It is hard to imagine many of these suggestions being realized by a judiciary that has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent in applying civil equality, or a citizenry indoctrinated into austere individualism; but Smith, with his expertise in election and anti-discrimination law, shows that we still have some tools left, if we would use them.
The book is: Whitelash: Unmasking white grievance at the ballot box, by Terry Smith. Cambridge University Press, 289 pages, $24.95 (softcover).